Early Balloon Ascensions At Savin Rock, Connecticut

Early Balloon Ascensions At Savin Rock, Connecticut

     By Jim Ignasher

 

Savin Rock Advertisement
August , 1895

     September 15, 1893, was a perfect late summer afternoon at Savin Rock, where crowds had gathered to see “Prince Leo – The Boy Aeronaut”, perform a balloon ascension and parachute drop. Leo was sixteen, and had been giving such exhibitions for the past three years. At the appointed time, the balloon was released and quickly rose to three-hundred feet where a fabric panel suddenly failed and allowed the buoyant gas to escape. The craft plummeted, and crashed into the top of a tree located next to live electrical wires. The impact threw Leo onto the wires where he was severely jolted before falling to the ground. He was badly cut and in shock, but he would survive, and would later go on to become one of the world’s best known aeronauts while performing under his real name; Albert Leo Stevens.      

     Much has been written about the former amusement park at Savin Rock, but it seems that little attention has been given to the aeronautical exhibitions designed to draw visitors to the well known resort.  

     There was a time when balloon ascensions drew large crowds, and in the mid 1800s, due to their novelty, simply watching one ascend was enough to satisfy. However, as time when on, “aeronauts” were obligated to perform greater feats of daring such as leaping from balloons using parachutes. Some performers took it a step further by jumping with two or more parachutes, cutting away from one, free-falling, then deploying another. And still others would be shot from a tube or “cannon” suspended beneath the balloon.    

     Balloon ascensions at Savin Rock began in the late1880s, with the vast majority taking place without incident. Those that failed made headlines, which at times drew larger crowds to the next scheduled event.    

Savin Rock Advertisement
August, 1897

     A case in point was one of the earliest recorded ascensions to be made from Savin Rock. On the afternoon of August 7, 1889, a man identified as Professor Northup took off from the railroad grove and achieved an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet at which time he dropped using his parachute. The chute opened quickly, but Northup came down in the water of Long Island Sound about 1,200 feet from shore. He wasn’t wearing any type of floatation device, and might have drowned had it not been for a passing boat that came to his rescue.

     Another aeronaut to perform at Savin Rock was Miss Louise Bates, one of the few female aeronauts of the day. On July 25, 1894, she was to perform a high-altitude parachute drop, but a mooring pole cut the fabric of her balloon as it was released allowing gas to escape. The leak wasn’t realized until the balloon had risen to 150 feet. When it began to fall she leapt clear, but her parachute failed to open. Her fall was broken by the upper branches of a tree where she was rescued miraculously unhurt.         

     The following summer a man calling himself “Daring Donald” had a remarkably similar experience. Fortunately when his chute failed he landed in an area of soft ground. He survived his injuries, and went on to give future performances.

     Many aeronauts went by the title of “professor”. On July 25, 1903, Professor Dennis Tatneaud’s parachute opened perfectly, but prevailing currents brought him over the water where he splashed-down near the West Haven Jetty. He managed to cling to two oyster stakes until he was rescued one hour later, thoroughly exhausted from his ordeal.  

     However, it wasn’t just mishaps that made the news. August 27, 1903 was the opening of a three-day balloon festival at Savin Rock. One performer was Professor Robert Mack, who soared to the height of a mile before being fired from a “cannon” amidst a blaze of fireworks. He landed safely at the ball fields in what was described as “remarkable ballooning”. The balloon used by Mack was reportedly one of the largest in use at the time.

     Unfortunately some accidents ended tragically, such as the ascension made by Theodore French on August 17, 1907. When his parachute failed to open he landed atop a piano factory and was killed.

Savin Rock Advertisement
June, 1908

     By 1908, airships were beginning to replace balloons as a way to draw crowds for they could do things balloons couldn’t.

     In June of 1908, famous aeronaut Charles Hamilton arrived with his airship and drew quite a bit of attention. On June 13, Hamilton took off from Savin Rock bound for New Haven, and after circling a stadium in that city, had to make an emergency landing on some railroad tracks. After making some repairs, he took off again, but encountered strong winds which blew him out over Long Island Sound. There he was forced to land in the water where he was rescued by a passing boat.    

 Balloon ascensions continued at Savin Rock at least until 1915. By this time World War I was raging in Europe, and after the war former military pilots took to the “barn storming” circuit which quickly eclipsed balloon ascensions as a way to draw crowds.    

Sources:

Morning Journal And Courier, (New Haven, CT.), “Drops In The Sound”, August 8, 1889 

Waterbury Evening Democrat, (Waterbury, CT.), “Accident and Incident – Daring Donald Falls from Balloon At Savin Rock”, July 24, 1891.  

Hartford Courant, “An Aeronaut’s Fall – Prince Leo Nearly Loses His Life At Savin Rock”, September 16, 1893

The Daily Morning Journal And Courier, “Parachute Did Not Work”, July 26, 1894 

The Daily Morning Journal And Courier, “Balloonist Recovers”, July 27, 1903

The Washington Times, “Balloonist Pattneau Drops Into The Sea”, July 27, 1903.  (The name of the balloonist should be “Tatneaud”, not “Pattneau”.)

The Daily Morning Journal And Courier, “Remarkable Ballooning – Boy Shot From cannon A Mile In Midair At Rock”, August 28, 1903 

The Topeka State Journal, (Topeka, KS.), “He Drops To Death”, August 19, 1907

Evening Post, “Dashed To Pieces – Fate Of Aeronaut”, August 20, 1907

Wood County Reporter, (Grand Rapids, WS.), Aeronaut Is Dashed To Death”, August 29, 1907

New York Times, “Airship Falls Into Sound”, June 14, 1908

 

 

 

 

 

West Haven, CT. – July 25, 1894

West Haven, Connecticut – July 25, 1894

 

     On the afternoon of July 25, 1894, a balloon ascension – parachute drop was scheduled to take place at Railroad Grove near Savin Rock, in West haven, Connecticut.  Miss Louise Bates, it was advertised, would drop from a balloon using a parachute.  2,000 spectators reportedly arrived to watch the event. 

     The ascension was scheduled for 4 p.m., but for unspecified reasons was delayed until after 5 p.m.  When the balloon was finally released, it floated very slowly upwards.  When it reached an altitude of about 150 feet, it was caught by a slight breeze and began to sail off in an easterly direction over some trees and towards the Ocean Inn.  At that time Miss Bates made her drop, but due to the low altitude of the balloon, the parachute didn’t have time to open properly.  She fell rapidly and landed in the upper branches of a tree which broke her fall.  Fortunately she was not seriously injured, and was rescued a short time later.  Meanwhile, the balloon sailed off on its own without a pilot, and was recovered later in the evening near City Point in the neighboring town of New Haven.

     After her ordeal in the tree, Miss Bates stood with her manager, Mort McKim, before some of the spectators.  Mr. McKim explained that the reason the balloon had failed to rise was due to a pole which had fallen against it when it was released.  The pole had created a tear in the balloon which had allowed gas to escape.  Miss Bates had decided to make her drop anyway so as not to disappoint the crowd.  

     Despite the explanation, comments were made about the disappointing quality of recent balloon ascension given in the Savin Rock area.  Such ascensions, it was hoped, would draw crowds and boost local economic ventures.

      One businessman was quoted as saying, “Well we don’t want any more so-called balloon ascensions.  None of them have been successful and we don’t think such fizzles help the shore any.  Again we cannot understand why the ascension is made in such an out of the way place.  Here we have a large base ball grounds with accommodations and seats for several thousand people and yet the management  sees fit to have the balloon inflated and the ascensions made from a spot way off in the woods.  In this way the crowd is taken away from the grove and no benefit is derived by anyone.”

     This accident wasn’t the only close call Miss Bates experienced during her parachuting career.  About five years earlier, on July 6, 1889, Miss Bates was scheduled to make a parachute drop at Deal Lake in Asbury Park, New Jersey.  The balloon had drifted over the water, and was at a height of 1,500 feet when it suddenly began to loose altitude.   Miss Bates dropped with her chute, but it failed to open properly, and she splashed down into the lake narrowly missing a rowboat.  She then became entangled in the parachute lines and almost drowned before being rescued.  

     Sources:

     The Daily Morning Journal And Courier, (New Haven, CT.), “Parachute Did Not Work”, July 26, 1894     

     The Sun, (N.Y.), “An Aeronaut Falls Into A Lake.”, July 7, 1889

New Haven, CT. – September 15, 1893

New Haven, Connecticut – September 15, 1893

 

     On the afternoon of September 15, 1893, aeronaut “Prince Leo”, age 16, was scheduled to perform a balloon ascension and parachute drop at Savin Rock in New Haven.  An estimated crowd of 1,000 people had gathered to watch the event.  After the balloon had risen about 300 feet it suddenly developed a tear allowing the gas to escape.  The balloon, with Prince Leo still aboard, rapidly fell and crashed into the top of a tree.  The impact tossed Leo from the car and he hit a live electrical wire used by trolleys.  When help arrived he was badly cut and in shock from the jolt, but he later recovered.    

     “Prince Leos” real name was Albert Leo Stevens, (1877 – 1944) who went on to become a world famous aeronaut.   Stevens began performing under the stage name, “Prince Leo, the boy aeronaut”, when he was just 13.  

     Sources:

     Weekly Expositor, (Michigan), “A Cheap Excursion To Saginaw”, (A fair advertisement), May 9, 1890

     Hartford Courant, (Conn.), “Am Aeronaut’s Fall – Prince Leo Nearly Loses His Life At Savin Rock”, September 16, 1893  

 

West Haven, CT – August 17, 1907

West Haven, Connecticut – August 17, 1907

Updated February 7, 2018

 

    balloon On August 17, 1907, Theodore French, a young aeronaut from New Haven, Connecticut, was scheduled to give a parachute performance at Savin Rock in West Haven.  Three weeks earlier, he’d accepted a dare to go up in a balloon and be shot out of a seven-foot long tin “cannon”, and parachute to the ground.  On that occasion he landed safely.  On this day the performance was to be repeated, but with a slight change.  This time, the cannon would drop away from the balloon, it’s descent slowed by a parachute.  Then, as the cannon floated towards the ground, French would be shoot out of it, and land via use of a second parachute attached to his body.   

     When the balloon had reached a height of about 2,600 feet  the cannon was cut loose, and reportedly “swung clumsily” before French was discharged.  Once free of the cannon, French’s parachute failed to open, and he plummeted downward landing on the roof of a nearby piano factory and was killed instantly.  The cannon came down a few feet away.

     It was reported that Theodore’s father, Robert French, was the Chief of Police in New Haven, Connecticut.   Some sources put Theodore’s age at 19, others at 20.

     Sources:

     Topeka State Journal, “He Drops To Death”, August 19, 1907

     (A London England Newspaper) The Age, “Aeronaut Killed – Parachute Fails To Open” August 21, 1907

     Taranaki Herald, “Aeronaut Killed – Failure Of A Parachute”, August 20, 1907

     Evening Post, “Dashed To Pieces – Fate Of Aeronaut”, August 20, 1907, Page 7

     New York Times, “Half-Mile Fall From Sky Kills Boy”, August 18, 1907. 

 

 

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